The purpose of literature, the reason why stories, poems and plays exist, is to capture and share thoughts, ideas and experiences through language. As with any art form, literature exists to make us think, to give us ideas to explore on our own, to relate to ourselves and our own lives, and to examine the depths and nuances of the human condition.


For this to occur, however, we the readers have to make our own intellectual contribution to the literary experience. The author’s text by itself carries only so much meaning; it is up to us, the readers, to draw and create meaning for ourselves, to interact with the author’s text and make it part of ourselves, to join in the conversation begun by the author and continue it, then see where it takes us.


To that end, we have the reader’s notebook. For each reading assignment, we need to sit down and write about what we read for ten to fifteen minutes, to explore those thoughts and ideas that came up during the reading and try to make meaning out of them. That’s the definition of literary response; it is the reader’s contribution to the meaning of the text, a sort of intellectual engagement that enables literature to come alive.


Now that we are in high school, the age of the “book report” is over. Simply “knowing the story” (finishing the reading and having a general idea of what we just read) is not  enough; it is no longer our ultimate goal. It is certainly a necessary first step, but it is not a means to an end. Our goal now is to think beyond the text; to draw and create meaning for ourselves by identifying and exploring the larger ideas and themes that arise from a text, and also by recognizing what an author is doing and why. Once we are able to do this, we can begin to make the all-important and crucial step from response into critical analysis.


One way to understand the concept of response is to illustrate the four basic levels, or forms, of literary engagement:


1.      Comprehension. The most basic level of engagement with a text. We achieve comprehension simply by reading and then having a fairly clear idea of what we just read. This skill is useful in writing book reports or plot summaries, generally on the elementary school level. Again, simply “knowing it” is no longer the ultimate goal for high-school students, though it is a necessary first step.


2.      Reaction. We can begin to think beyond the text and move closer to response when we react to its constituent elements, albeit subjectively: “I was glad when…” “I was disappointed when…” “I thought…was unfair because…” “I don’t like this character because…” Reactions like these are a step in the right direction and are useful in that regard, but they still don’t constitute response. Note also that reaction in this sense does not imply an evaluative judgment of the text. As human beings, we do tend to judge things and form opinions, but those judgments tend to be very limiting, especially negative ones; they get in the way of real, meaningful response. Personally liking or disliking a text, while certainly part of the overall experience, is never the point and is rarely relevant to the work’s meaning or the discovery thereof.


3.      Response. This is where we truly begin to think beyond the text and enable ourselves to draw and create meaning from what we read. We need to be able not only to recognize the larger ideas and themes that are at work in a story, but to explore them and make meaning out of them. We also need to begin to examine what a writer is doing and why by recognizing and identifying various literary elements (plot, theme, character, setting, etc.) and techniques (foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism, irony, etc.), and considering their effects. Response also involves making connections between a text and other texts, our own lives, and universal ideas.


4.      Critical analysis. Full intellectual engagement with a text, the ability to analyze it from a critical point of view, is the ultimate goal of reading literature in an academic setting. Critical analysis takes response one step further by introducing literary theory and critical perspective; it involves (and requires) a thorough knowledge and understanding of literature and literary principles as a whole. Where response generally begins with a text (or texts) and leads to ideas, critical analysis begins with an idea, theory, or critical perspective, and then seeks to apply a text or texts thereto. In a way, critical analysis could be seen as response from the opposite direction.


Our goal in using the reader’s notebook as an instrument of literary engagement is to move from comprehension and reaction into response, and ultimately into critical analysis. When writing a response to the reading, it may be useful to:

·        Ask yourself, “What does this text make me think? What’s this really about? What is this writer trying to tell us, beyond the story itself?”

·        Think (and write) about the characters and their motivations;

·        Try to answer some of the questions you may have about the story, things you’re wondering about or that bother you;

·        Identify the themes, the larger ideas at work, and then explore (write more about) their meaning in the context of the story, in your own life, and in the world;

·        Notice literary elements like plot and setting, and techniques like metaphor and irony, i.e., try to recognize what the writer is doing and why;

·        Jot down notes as you read, to remember ideas that come up which you may want to write about later;

·        Avoid plot summary and subjective judgments; don’t let them get in the way of your thinking.


Demonstration: The Natural by Bernard Malamud (novel – Chapter 1)

Demonstration: The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (memoir - Introduction)

Demonstration: Animal Farm by George Orwell (novel – Chapter 1)

Demonstration: “Thank You, M’am” by Langston Hughes (short story)